Photo: Laila Gebhard/Unsplash
- On August 25, the ‘News and Analysis’ section of Science published a rebuttal of a monologue featured on the Fox News program ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’.
- Carlson described Anthony Fauci as a crook who committed serious crimes. Science also confirmed Carlson’s claims and found that none of them were true.
- Science writer and lecturer Stuart Ritchie debated on his blog whether scientific journals should publish such political rebuttals or stay in their own lane.
- In this article, Prof. Gautam I. Menon addresses the same questions – should they or shouldn’t they? – from an Indian perspective.
The signature of this article is accompanied by a disclaimer: The views expressed here are his own and do not represent his institutions..
It may seem surprising that this needs to be said. Individuals have opinions. But what can a corporate vision mean?
Some make fun of the disclaimer text. Robert Park, who regularly writes the monthly ‘What’s New’ column for the American Physical Society, would conclude by saying, “Opinions are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by the university, but should be.”
Informed scientific opinion is open to the idea that plants must be genetically modified if by doing so can produce more nutritious foods as well as drought or pest resistant crops. People are more skeptical the more they think about these questions. Elected politicians cannot be indifferent to what their constituents think.
Most scientists might view a crewed Moon mission as a waste of resources, unlikely to yield any new information on a large scale. But in such an achievement, which is encouraged by politicians of all kinds, an element of national pride comes into play, outweighing what should be a purely scientific consideration.
Where should scientific journals intervene in these disturbing areas where science and politics intersect? And to what extent should magazines seek to educate the public on these issues, knowing that their views may not be popular even if they are right?
Editorial lines received by high-profile international scientific journals such as Science, Nature or Proceedings of the Royal Society rarely political. They may point to the need for additional funding for science or even comment on scientific research. scandal of the dayhowever, it is rare for them to make explicit political points.
However, there are exceptions. in 2008, Nature It endorsed Barack Obama, the first U.S. presidential candidate in its more than 150-year history.)
medical journals, for example JAMA or Lancet, they got a little bolder in their editorial speeches. But that’s because, as the German pathologist and politician Rudolf Virchow insightfully puts it, “Medicine is social science and politics, but on a large scale it is nothing but medicine.”
This silence is partly due to the fact that scientific journals are often owned by large multinational companies. Nature It was taken over by Springer in 2010 and expanded the reach of an already highly profitable company. magazine Sciencehowever, it belongs to a non-profit scientific society.
On August 25 of this year, ScienceThe ‘News and Analysis’ section published a rebuttal of a monologue that appeared in the newspaper a few days ago. Fox News Show ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’. In it, Carlson targeted Anthony Fauci, calling him a dangerous crook who committed serious crimes. This was three days after Fauci announced that he would retire from his position as chief medical adviser to the US president at the end of the year.
What Carlson says is important because of his audience on American television. In July 2020, her show broke the record for the highest rated program in US cable news history. He regularly speaks to an audience of approximately 4.5 million viewers, which is noticeably more than his rivals on CNN and MSNBC.
ScienceHis rebuttal noted that “nearly everything Tucker Carlson said was … misleading or false.”
Regarding Fauci, Carlson said:
“Then he publicly lied about the masks. ‘You should wear one while cycling, you get a lot of life-enhancing oxygen. What you really need is more carbon dioxide. Be more like a tree.’ That’s what he said in public, but privately, he wrote, ‘The typical mask you buy at a pharmacy isn’t really effective at keeping a virus out.
Science debunked as follows:
“Fauci never made these so-called quotes publicly. Special description a email Posted in February 2020. At the start of the pandemic, the evidence for the effectiveness of masks was limited. As Fauci explained, he changed his mind about promoting mask use after it became clear that there was no shortage of masks, that asymptomatic COVID-19 is common and causes many infections, and that the virus can be spread via aerosols.”
Carlson also said that “the researchers at Johns Hopkins [University] admitted that quarantines don’t actually work. They ruined people’s lives for no reason.”
Science Written by economists, not epidemiologists, this ‘working paper’ has been heavily criticized. Many other studies have concluded that quarantines actually slow the spread of the virus, prevent serious illness and death, and help reduce pressure on hospital systems.”
In an interesting blog post, science writer and lecturer Stuart Ritchie expressed his own thoughts on the subject:
“…then why was I worried? Science piece? It’s the kind of thing you see all the time on private political verification sites – but I’ve never seen it in a scientific journal before. I am in favor of refuting misleading and false arguments. But is it good that scientific journals are now publishing direct, detailed attacks on right-wing shock athletes?”
Ritchie presents his arguments, both for and against, in a conversational style between two ‘alternative selves’ named Stuart Prime, who is more sympathetic to the scientific journals that publish Stuart Alpha and similar interventions against the entry of politics into the journals.
Stuart Alpha explained his view with these words: “The risk is that if ‘science’ becomes something strongly associated with liberal politics and strongly opposed to conservative politicians… it will be much harder to persuade conservatives to take it seriously. the future.”
Stuart Prime opposed:
“In the US (and to a lesser extent the UK) there has been a massive attack on science and scientists like Fauci by massively popular media figures on the right. A lot of people, 3 or 4 million people, watch Tucker Carlson’s show every night. It’s infuriating to anyone who thinks that he’s spreading such blatantly untrue stuff every night to an audience of this size. Are you really advocating that scientific journals should sit back and not publish anything that resists this relentless attack? And by the way, this attack (at least some of it) is why people lose faith in science in the first place.”
In India, various publications of the Indian Academy of Sciences, among them the flagship Current Science Founded in 1932 by CV Raman et al., the journal is published by the multinational publishing company Springer. However, they are editorially independent.
Despite this independence, Indian science journals have remained strictly silent on questions that intersect with politics. This silence is perhaps excessive. Their editorials lack robust debates about political interference in science, political attacks on scientists, or even politically rooted distortions in funding and governance.
Had Indian journals taken an overtly political side, their impartiality would certainly have been lost, especially as seen from outside the scientific community. But it would be equally strange if, as they now appear, they should continue to remain independent of the important social and political problems of our time, especially those to which a scientific perspective has essentially contributed.
One area in which science journals in India could reasonably intervene has to do with the notion that products from cows are in any way special. This goes against any scientific understanding.
Ideally, such ideas should be confined to cultural practice without any scientific interpretation for or against. A mutual understanding of the need to separate public spaces from private spaces would have sufficed.
When such an idea goes beyond being a relatively harmless cultural signifier and enters a political space in the service of certain political symbolism and with repercussions for our society, it becomes difficult to justify not taking a stand.
Other issues at the intersection of science and politics include a current and ongoing overemphasis on ancient Indian texts as the true source of scientific and all other knowledge. At the intersection of superstition and rationality, tension is inevitable. However, the assassinations of the rationalist Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare show that even the most plausible views held by scientists can provoke a murderous response.
An ordinary Indian citizen has no real way of knowing what science has to say on a particular subject. There are few and often unavailable places to hear arguments for or against a subject involving science.
Given this unfilled space, where science is (mis)used in the service of overtly political ends, it may be reasonable to ask that scientific venues see fit to articulate it. Scientific journal editorials often reach only a limited and technical audience. However, such interference will be taken seriously when reproduced in other media that is more geared towards the public, especially if it is believed to be impartial.
Therefore, when commenting on political issues, editors of scholarly journals should only weigh editorial flexibility on issues for which they are better placed than anyone else. They must stand by the evidence, the scientific method and rigorous analysis – all values are the core of scientific practice. All this, of course, is also independent of any personal political views.
But other than that, they should stay away from the distractions of the broader discourse. Naturalists as a group have nothing special to contribute to debates on the economy, unemployment, foreign relations, social inequality, or political activity as a whole.
If scientific journals comment on questions outside their area of expertise, there is nothing to gain and indeed much to lose. For their views to be taken seriously in areas where their views naturally need to be taken into account, they must be measured in their interventions, scientific and precise in what they say and how they say it.
They must also resist the urge to bow to any current, past or future political winds, if they are seen as reliable voices.
Gautam I. Menon is a professor at Ashoka University in Sonepat and the Chennai Institute of Mathematical Sciences. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent his institutions.